The 5 Luckiest Accidents That Scientists Passed Off as Skill
This might come as some surprise, given everything Cracked has written about them, but it turns out that not every scientist is evil.
Just most of them.
Indeed, thanks to professional organizations, and peer pressure, and even good old-fashioned legal justice, most scientists conduct their work within certain well-established sets of ethical limits. And sure, sometimes those limits are wildly overstepped, but for the most part there's enough incentives in the system to keep scientists from going too crazy.
But imagine now that you're a scientist, and you just thought of something really fucking crazy. Like an experiment that will only work if you irradiate half the planet. You obviously can't do that, or at least you can't get caught doing that. Your only option then is to look around to see if someone's already done the crazy part for you, to find some serendipitous accident of man or nature that left a perfectly designed experiment in its wake. Something like ...
Nuclear Weapons Testing Dumps Radioactive Tracers in the Air
Oh, did you think I was kidding about how crazy science sometimes is?
How crazy it needs to be?
This all goes back to the 1950s, when whipping nuclear weapons into the atmosphere and seeing what happened was what all of the really cool governments were doing.
You weren't getting invited to any boy-girl parties if you didn't.
All of this nuclear heavy petting had the minor side effect of spreading radioactive isotopes across half the world. It became absorbed into plants, animals, and basically every other part of the food chain, and if you were alive at the time, you were at least a little bit radioactive. Eventually the world collectively said "holy shit," and in 1963 everyone agreed to stop doing this.
And so everything ticked along just fine. Eventually, after a few decades passed, and humanity had mutated into whatever we are now ...
Fatter, I guess.
... some scientists wanted to find out how fast fat cells are created and replaced in humans. One great way to do this in test animals is to feed them irradiated food, which contains a specific radioactive marker called carbon-14, and then count how the irradiated fat cells appear and degrade over time. Doing this in humans would be great, except, you know, morals.
At this point they realized that anyone alive in the era of nuclear weapons testing would have already eaten food massively irradiated with carbon-14. Last week we talked about how this fact was exploited by forensic scientists to solve crimes. But the same hilarious bit of mass poisoning could also be used to study the life-cycle of human fat cells, by literally measuring how radioactive people's asses were.
Employing what I can only a imagine was a well-lubed Geiger counter. And a smile.
Cholera Attacks Random London Neighborhoods
Until about 1990 or so, cities were basically the worst places in the world. For all the economic benefits high density living allowed, for the actual humans who had to live in them, cities basically meant that they would be exposed to a lot more of their own smells and poops than they might otherwise prefer.
"Landlord! Open thy window and thus dyminysh this reek of ass."
Even by the 19th century, when things weren't as bad as they'd once been (they'd stopped pooping directly in the center of the street, for one), people would still fall down dead at a moment's notice for no obvious reason. In 1854, for example, a cholera epidemic swept across London, attacking Londoners seemingly at random. The dominant theory at the time was that plagues and diseases of this nature were spread by "miasmas" or "bad air."
A physician by the name of John Snow noticed that certain buildings and areas within London were very badly hit by cholera, but that their neighbors were often left untouched. He wondered if there might be something to this, and began mapping out the areas that had been most affected. Some order began to appear in the randomness, and indeed it did look like some buildings were getting hit harder than others.
A little more investigation revealed that the buildings where lots of people were getting cholera were all getting their drinking water supplied by a particular water company. A water company that just happened to have its intake located in the Thames, downstream of where the city had recently started dumping its shit.
Discount Shitty Water Co., presumably.
This helped prove that cholera was spread by polluted drinking water and not by foul air, or evil spirits, or premarital hand-holding, or whatever the current state-of-the-art Victorian medicine was going to come up with next.
The Islands of the Tortoises
You've heard of the Galapagos Islands, certainly, although you might not be sure why or how. It had something to do with evolution? It was where Charles Darwin invented evolution, right? Yeah, that's it. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands and invented evolution, prior to which all the species remained static and unchanged throughout time.
"Dammit, Mr. Bucholz. You might be a lost cause, but please don't make the whole class dumber."
OK, enough stupidity.
"I want to believe you, Mr. Bucholz, I really do."
Let's first quickly run down some of the interesting features these particular islands have. Like the fact that they're islands, for one. That might seem obvious, but the implications are far-ranging. Animals living on any one of these islands wouldn't likely visit another island, thus turning each island into its own little ecosystem. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, the Galapagos were remote, distant enough from humans (especially Europeans) so that by the time Darwin finally reached it, the islands had yet to be polluted with humans or their garbage or their mongrel, halfbreed animals.
And it was those features that turned the Galapagos Islands into a perfect environment in which to discover the effects of evolution. Darwin didn't finally button down evolution until years later (and he had some help), but it was his visit to the Galapagos that inspired him to seriously consider the possibility of species changing over time, after he observed the completely unique yet oddly similar species that populated the islands there.
He also shot and killed a shit-ton of them, but that was how science was done back then.
What Darwin would eventually conclude was that each island, isolated from both South America and the other islands in the chain, allowed the various birds and turtles to change in unique ways, via the process of natural selection. It's the same process that happens everywhere else on the planet, but the birds and turtles of the Galapagos made it clear in a way nowhere else on the planet could.
The Vietnam War Ruins Lives at Random
It's a little hard for me, living ass deep as I do in the Age of Irony, to appreciate how awful the Vietnam War drafts must have been. Getting picked at random and told you have to go get shot at and maybe die for no particularly good reason. That's got to suck, and it makes me feel at least a little guilty about how much time I've spent contemplating The Transformers in my life.
"Sarge, you gotta promise me something. If I don't make it back, you gotta make sure our children grow up to waste their lives designing stupid T-shirts and arguing about videoed games."
It seems almost impossible to imagine anything good coming out of this clusterfuck. But leave it to science to find a way.
The draft during the Vietnam War was based on assigning numbers to specific birthdays at random, with men whose birthdays were assigned lower numbers being more likely to be drafted. Because this was so random, with few confounding factors like location or income to muddy the data, it turned draftees into a statistically ideal group to study the lifetime effects of being drafted. Like, for example, the research that found that men with low numbers (more likely to be drafted) immediately became more anti-war, and ultimately more Democratic leaning.
(thinking) "It'd be helpful if the candidate that wanted me dead the most had an asterisk or something beside it on the ballot."
And if that seems obvious, consider the sad study that found out that just in case getting shot at and sometimes killed wasn't bad enough, the poor assholes who came back from Vietnam could then look forward to a lifetime of dramatically lower earnings. Like on the order of 15 percent less per year.
"Also, Sarge, you gotta promise me you'll set up a monthly budget and stick to it. Promise me you'll keep an eye on your entertainment expenses, Sarge. Promise me."
28,000 Missing Rubber Ducks
In 1992, a container fell off the side of a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. But instead of being full of things we typically dump in the Pacific, like oil, or zoo animals, or national treasure Tom Hanks, this container was full of rubber ducks. Thousands of them.
And for awhile, that was that, this simple act of sea-littering not much more than a write-off on some insurer's spreadsheet, almost $12 of Chinese plastic gone forever.
Until they started washing ashore.
The ocean is famous for being a harsh mistress, but let's not forget that, in many important respects, it's also quite a large mistress. This fact makes studying some of its larger features quite challenging, like, for example, its surface currents. Satellite imagery can only tell us so much (all those clouds get in the way), and direct measurements of surface currents are impractical because of the expense and the ethical issues with dumping thousands of current-tracking instruments into the ocean.
But if thousands of current-tracking instruments are dumped accidentally, science can go to town! That might seem a grandiose description for rubber ducks, but really, they're perfect for it. They're bright, tough, and relentlessly floaty, and once the news media found out there were scientists tracking the movement of rubber ducks throughout the oceans, regular citizens would know to report found ducks to their local science magistrates.
And so, by tracking where and when these ducks washed up around the world (a bunch crossed the Arctic friggin Ocean and ended up in the North Atlantic), scientists were able to map out major ocean currents to a degree that never would have been possible before.
Which that useless ass national treasure Tom Hanks never managed.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and takes great pride in personally spreading stupidity in a manner that future scientists will hopefully be able to take advantage of. Join him on Facebook or Twitter and become part of history.